2.15.17 — Gilding the Laurel

Pierre Gouthière played a role in the foundation of the Louvre. It was not the role he wanted.

In late 1797, the French Ministry of Finance ordered the sale of two alabaster vases “of mediocre quality” to help fund the museum. That description may not ring true today for gilded mounts that Gouthière had fashioned some twenty years before. The Frick goes so far as to claim that they “capture . . . blossoming laurel . . . as if cast from nature.” Yet the master gilder had seen his patrons dead, his finances in ruins, and his art a thing of the past.

It takes a leap into the past even to describe his art as nature. His subjects included the fantasy or exoticism of nymphs, dromedaries, African heads, and ambiguous gender along with leaves, snakes, door knobs, and ram’s heads. They grow so intricate as to all but dissolve into a weave of gold. Gouthière may have been gilding laurel, but he was surely also gilding the lily. He met standards of realism that Revolutionary France had begun to set side, in favor of Neoclassicism. A show of him as “Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court” brings that style to life through February 19.

It offers a welcome lesson or two, even for someone like me with little love of excess. The Frick has always held furniture and the decorative arts, although one might walk right past them on the way to paintings. A commission here once shared a room with the museum’s holdings of Jean Honoré Fragonard. As its first sampling of a living artist, it has invited Arlene Shechet into its portico gallery, to curate Rococo porcelain and her own. Now, though, it installs the gilding downstairs, in rooms more often dedicated to prints and drawings. It shows the gilder at work and on the make.

That first lesson comes with effective use of new media, from a museum that has often leapt ahead of others with its Web site. A video explains Gouthière’s craft, and a touch screen allows one to flip through the results. They introduce vocabulary like firedogs (or the public face of andirons), thyrsi (or the staff of ivy and pine that Bacchus carried), and dégraissage (or paring back, from an artist with no penchant for restraint). He had a hand every step of the way, from the creation of a wax mold for bronze to gilding and burnishing. For him, chasing meant cutting into metal with tool after tool—not just to shape it, but also for a wealth of detail. That intricacy only increases over the course of his career.

Gouthière did work from designs by architects and classical models, because he played well by the game. Born in 1732, he quickly took over a patron’s workshop and married the man’s widow. He went around the merchant who had secured him work from the future king of Poland, put down the silversmith with whom he had partnered, and became gilder to the king of France in his mid-thirties. Where the court divided between supporters of Marie Antoinette, such as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and the king’s mistress, Gouthière succeeded with them both. Yet key patrons died soon after the revolution, stiffing him, and he hardly worked again until his death, bankrupt, in 1817.

He shows no sign of fatigue. The curator, Charlotte Vignon, opts for neither chronology nor theme. Like Gouthière, she pretty much piles it on. One can spot clearer masses early, but in time Greek porphyry, green marble, and Chinese porcelain must compete with fine leaves and chains. A dromedary’s hair rises like flames, as if from Gouthière’s sconces, incense burners, and firedogs. “Form follows function” is a distant dream away.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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